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Pane Management: The Ins and Outs of Window-Cleaning

By Lee Fleming
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page H10

If you're thinking your windows could use a good washing, join the crowd.

Washington's fairly mild winters keep window-cleaning firms in business all year round, but peak season starts now and continues into early October. Many firms have a two- to three-week wait time during this busy season -- though some offer "emergency service" in four to five days.

Generally, window washers don't work in bad weather. "If it's raining, we don't come out," said Israel Portillo, vice president of Top of the Line Window Cleaning in Woodbridge. "It's a safety question." High winds can also postpone jobs: "If conditions are not good, it's not safe for the crews and we won't send them out," Portillo said.

Tim Cox, co-owner of Virginia Window Cleaners in McLean, adds freezing temperatures, snow and thunderstorms to the list of hazards. "If we're just working around drops of rain, that's one thing," he said. "Customers need to understand that we try our best to keep appointments, but sometimes the weather won't cooperate."

Most residential jobs involve cleaning windows, sills, storm windows and screens, inside and out. Many firms will give cost estimates over the phone, asking details about the number, kind and condition of your windows. Once on site, they will give you a definite price based on the work to be done. This is not bait and switch, but standard practice.

If you have challenging windows -- multistory spans of glass or unusual shapes -- it's a good idea to get an on-site estimate ahead of time. Special types of ladders, ropes or other equipment may be needed, which adds to the cost.

Professionals are reluctant to give a "standard" per-window price, given the many combinations of windows out there. Many firms set a minimum charge, ranging from $95 to $125. Top of the Line's Portillo said the average fee for a credentialed professional job will run between $5 and $6.50 per window, depending on window size and difficulty. Screens, storm windows and sills are quoted separately. Extra labor, such as scraping paint off the glass or removing hard-water stains and film, can add $125 and up to a job, said Evelyn Cohn, co-owner with husband Kenny of Kevco Building Services in Gaithersburg.

"You will see people advertising $4 a window," said Portillo, "but they can be fly-by-night. If someone gets hurt, or breaks something, who will pay? You will."

He urges customers to make sure the cleaners are licensed, bonded and insured. It's also a good sign if they belong to organizations such as IWCA, the International Window Cleaning Association.

Screens, which collect pollen, dust and dirt, should be cleaned along with the windows, said Portillo; otherwise, they'll transfer dirt to the glass. Dirty screens also filter light, defeating the purpose of having clean, sparkling windows.

Kevco's Cohn said screens deteriorate faster when left exposed to environmental pollutants, such as acid rain. Nylon mesh will tear and become fragile. Metal mesh will oxidize, and can transfer a film to the outside of the window when water goes through it. Cleaning off these hard-water stains is time consuming and adds substantially to the cost.

If screens are bent or otherwise damaged, professionals usually will not try to clean them. "We recommend that customers get them repaired or replaced," said Portillo. Not only is the screen likely to fall apart, but frayed and unraveling wires can be hazardous to crews.

In getting ready for the window washers, access is everything: Crews need to be able to get to the windows, inside and out. Clear off all sills, move obstructing pieces of furniture, raise blinds and pull back curtains. Outside, prune any plantings that are blocking the windows. Some firms will move things for you, others won't. Ask in advance.

Crews should cover the floor to protect against spills. Many will either remove their shoes or wear protective booties when working inside a house, to prevent tracking dirt. "It's also a good idea to make a list of things that are 'high up' that you might want us to do while we're inside," said Kevco's Cohn, "like changing light bulbs in the chandelier or cleaning mirrors."

Window washing is done by hand, using a bucket, cleaning solution, cotton-fabric cleaning wand or natural sponge and squeegee, and a soft brush for screens. Most cleansers used these days are environmentally friendly and won't harm plantings, but if you have doubts, ask. Removing oxidation stains requires special solutions and careful rubbing with extra-fine steel wool to avoid scratching the glass.

Tom Cox of Virginia Window Cleaners said customers should be aware that washing storm windows requires removing them. If they're the triple-track variety (where screens or storm windows can be pulled down or pushed up, depending on the season), removal is simple. If the windows are screwed onto the outside, more labor is involved.

Tilt-in windows also pose problems. "The big selling point for tilt-ins is you just tilt and clean the outside," he said. "But we don't recommend that, except where you have a very high tilt-in window. Otherwise, you're bringing dirty water inside the house." Tilt-ins can also get stuck in shifting tracks when a house settles, making them hard to open for cleaning.

How long will the job take? Portillo's rule of thumb: Figure 45 minutes to an hour for every $100 (this applies to windows only; other factors will add to the time). Cox advises clients to set aside a whole day for window washing. "Don't try to work your schedule around exact times," he said. "There are too many variables on jobs. We'll give you the day that we will show up and then confirm the approximate times."

Most professionals advise that windows be cleaned at least twice a year, in spring and fall. Virginia Window Cleaners services many clients every three months. A number of firms offer discounts or will freeze prices for a set amount of time if you take out a contract.

How to keep your windows sparkling between visits? Use a non-ammonia aerosol cleaner for streak-free, film-free glass. Never use ammonia and brushes on tinted glass or windows with solar film. Choose fabric-covered wands and mild detergents instead. And to avoid oxidation as water goes through screens onto glass, make sure to reposition your sprinklers so they don't hit your screens.

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